Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
Lebanon has voted, and the results are good, bad and ugly. The good news is that the international community, led by former US president Jimmy Carter, declared that election day activities were free from intimidation, and conducted “legally and properly”. Even from a distance, it was obvious that the votes would be counted in a transparent way, given that supporters of each alliance were willing to pay to fly Lebanese voters in from around the world to participate at great expense. So at least the votes counted.
Additional good news is that given that the pro-American coalition won, Lebanon won’t be on a collision course with the West. And there may also be good news for Barack Obama, with some analysts saying his Cairo speech significantly weakened anti-American sentiment in the region, thus persuading some swing voters to embrace the pro-American coalition in Lebanon.
But before we get to the really bad news, we need to understand that the results were murky. Lebanese voted for the status quo, keeping the current ruling Western-friendly coalition in power with 71 seats, and the Hezbollah-led alliance at 57 seats, virtually identical proportions to the last government. But much like the 2000 US presidential elections, where Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the vote count to George W. Bush, the losing coalition seemed to receive more total votes than the winners. Very fortunately for Lebanon, rules being rules, the losing coalition respected the results, sparing Lebanon the sort of protracted public sentiment endured by America after its 2000 elections. Additionally, in general, it seems that only a handful of Lebanon’s historically powerful families were able to perpetuate their names in the parliament, leaving room for new political blood. But, that’s pretty much the end of the not so bad news.
Now for the unquestionably bad news. The bad news is that at the highest levels, political leadership still seems to be inherited. It’s not just a political patriarchy, it’s also a constellation of alliances that line up around these candidates to support the same old business deals going to the same old cronies. This is bolstered by a system with various problems. Foremost among them is that actual governmental election ballots do not exist. Voters are generally handed a slate of names on a piece of paper by their families or political leaders and those pieces of paper are often put directly in the ballot box. Of course there is the opportunity for the individual to change the names they vote for, but the process is more akin to mafia-style tribal block-voting than individual choice.
But the ugly news is even worse. Far worse. Lebanon’s electoral system actually apportions seats by religion – and not just Christian versus Muslim. Seats in each district are specified for one of a dozen-plus sects: Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Maronite, Sunni, Druze, Shiite, and on and on.
Why is this so ugly? For anyone living in America – or any other country that can really call itself a democracy – being told in advance that their congressional delegation would be composed of, for example, a Jew, five Christians, a Muslim, a Hindu and an atheist would be offensive if it didn’t sound like the beginning of a tasteless joke. Candidates should run based on the force of their ideas, not how their parents pray. Further, the fixed Lebanese sectarian system actually builds up the divisions between groups instead of reducing them, and has been a rallying cry for those who feel disadvantaged, sparking unrest and war. If South Africans – particularly White South Africans who had everything to lose – could leave behind their despicable history of segregation to embrace a one-person, one-vote proportional representation system, so too can the Lebanese.
Both the international community and the Lebanese themselves are complicit in the process. Those elected to parliament through this divisive system have little incentive to change it. So others must. What is needed inside Lebanon is a coalition of ordinary Lebanese and public intellectuals, together with the international community to say they want a unified Lebanon: One Lebanon where anyone, no matter their religion, can be president, prime minister, or speaker of the house. One Lebanon where the rights of individuals to pursue their lives in full liberty as they see fit while doing no harm to others, are guaranteed irrevocably in the Constitution. One Lebanon where there is one state and one gun, not a single militia carrying arms. One Lebanon where there is guaranteed inclusion for minority parties. One Lebanon that resembles a modern state made up of citizens, not a backward-looking fragment of the Ottoman Empire.
Perhaps the only thing keeping Lebanon’s electoral system from domestic and international scrutiny is that it’s generally in more miserable company in the Middle East, where inherited presidencies are increasingly the norm, or systems like Iran’s, where the votes are genuine but the candidates have to be approved first by the ‘Guardian Council’ – which disqualifies potential candidates on political grounds.
Lebanon’s electoral system, like Iran’s, should be confined to the dustbin of history. It’s disturbing. And worse, it actively reinforces the divisions that spark civil and sectarian strife. A new system can emerge if Lebanese civil society calls for it, and the international community supports these calls. The outcome would ultimately be a truly democratic Lebanon with less sectarianism, less violence and more unity.